How’s that Madison Tap Water?

Keep drinking, there is no cause for concern at present. An article in the Wisconsin State Journal explains the recently detected presence of the contaminant chromium-6 in local drinking water, but at a level that is likely below federal health safety limits. According to the US EPA, this inorganic chemical usually comes from “discharge from steel and pulp mills or erosion of natural deposits.” Chromium-6 by itself is not monitored by the EPA, but as part of the chromium whole. They may be implementing new limits for chromium-6 though because a study found that after prolonged exposure to it, some mice and rats developed cancer. Madison wells are still safe though.

For more information, read the¬†aforementioned¬†State Journal article, visit the EPA’s Drinking Water Protection site, or browse the library’s recommended reading list on Drinking Water Quality.

Photo credit: John Hart, State Journal Archive


Phosphorus Use : Problem with a capital P

Overuse of the agricultural fertilizer phosphorous has led to pollution of lakes, rivers and streams, in addition to the potential shortage of the chemical element worldwide. Number 15 on the periodic table, phosphorus was discovered in 1669 and found to glow in the dark. This may explain some of bright colors that can be seen in algal growth stemming from phosphoric pollution.

When excessively used, this fertilizer can be carried away in runoff to nearby bodies of water, and results in algal blooms. It can also be found causing issues at improperly run wastewater treatment facilities. The algal blooms in freshwater make the ecosystem unstable and also lower the water quality. An overabundance of phosphorus is also a cause of eutrophication. This means that too many plants grow and take the oxygen out of the water which puts fish and other aquatic life in danger as well as degrading the quality of the water. Scientists are debating how changing agricultural practices relating to phosphate may affect pollution of surface waters. For further information, read the UW-Madison press release. The caption for the photo posted above and another algae photo can be seen here.

Photo credit: UW-Madison Communications, Bryce Richter

Phosphorus Rules in Effect in Wisconsin

Passed in June this year by the Natural Resources Board, the Phosphorus Rules will go into effect this month. Compliance with these rules, basically governing the numeric level of phosphorus that can be permitted to enter the water, will help to keep waters cleaner and will ultimately benefit fish and wildlife, fisheries, waterfront property owners, and recreational water users among others. Some of the negative effects of phosphorus include “toxic algae, excessive weed growth and murky water” (WDNR release).

The rules were developed over a period of time based on years of scientific research and evidence. Input from farmers, water treatment systems, manufacturers, food processors, local governments and environmental groups was also essential in their formation. There is also further work being done to help lower the cost of compliance.

For more information, see the WDNR news release.

Photo from

Road Sealant Responsible for Water Contamination

Water samples have been taken from Alaska to Florida by the USGS and results are in. Contaminated lakes and rivers show a higher concentration of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), on the rise since the 1960s. These contaminants are toxic for fish and other aquatic life.

Researchers have found the main source of the PAHs to be coal-tar-based pavement sealant. One of the most common uses for this material is the squiggly, shiny black lines that seal the cracks in roadways. While effective, this material has a life span of only three to five years and is easily being transmitted into lakes and stream ecosystems. Storm runoff is a common mode of travel for PAHs from the sealant into the lakes.

The USGS news release gives further details, and the full journal article is available in Science of the Total Environment. For further reading suggestions, see our recommended reading list on Understanding and Protecting Groundwater.

Photo from

New Rules Regarding Groundwater Virus Treatment

Later this year, rules will go into effect that require disinfection of water by all municipal water systems in Wisconsin. This will increase protection for any state residents who’s drinking water comes from groundwater. These rules are based on a discovery highlighted in the 2010 Groundwater Coordinating Council Report that showed viruses are able to travel through layers of rock and soil, which was previously thought of as an adequate filtration system. The Groundwater Coordinating Council (GCC) is responsible for identifying areas where research is needed, reviewing research proposals, and publicizing research findings.

In addition to assessing water quality, the 2010 GCC Report also “described recent research on arsenic treatment, the effects of nitrates on stream invertebrates, the occurrence of mercury in wetlands, extreme precipitation events and developing new tools for investigating fecal contamination” (WDNR Release).

Wisconsin’s Water Library offers reading lists for the following related topics: Arsenic in Groundwater, Drinking Water Quality, Protecting our Wetlands, Understanding & Protecting Groundwater and Wastewater Treatment.

Photo of Wauwatosa Water Tank from Wikipedia.

Consequences of Altering Stream Flow

A recent USGS study has shown several negative effects of altering natural stream flow. When the amount of water is changed, the types of creatures that are able to survive in the stream change as well. In many streams where the flow has slowed and the amount of water decreased, desirable species such as trout have moved on, making space for less desirable species such as carp. Trout require a quickly moving stream with a rocky bottom, whereas carp are more likely to be found in a setting with a much slower flow, more similar to a pond.

The surprising fact may be that 90% of the streams studied by the USGS had in some way been altered. Some of the causes for alteration may include “reservoirs, diversions, subsurface tile drains, groundwater withdrawals, wastewater inputs, and impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, sidewalks and roads.” (USGS Release) Water quality and the health of the ecosystem are also being negatively affected by some of these changes to the streams. As water managers get a better understanding of the ecological effects of altering stream flow, they will be able to make more informed choices about dealing with streams in a healthy way. For further details and information, see the aforementioned USGS releases.
Photo courtesy of Punit Prakash.

UW Water Resources Institute’s New Videos

Within the past month, the UW Water Resources Institute has added two new videos to their collection. Produced by John Karl, these short YouTube videos are informative and to the point, a very effective way to spread some news from the field.

The first video(above), entitled “Testing Well Water for Microorganisms,” explains a simple process of water testing to check for contaminants. The goal of the project is a methodology to find the source of the contamination.

In the second video, “A New Measure of Groundwater Flow,” researchers experiment with pumping hot water into a well to determine the flow of the groundwater. The hot water will disperse more quickly if the water flow is quicker. Watch this video and others on University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute’s YouTube channel.